“My Soul Thirsts” Heichal Shlomo Museum, Jerusalem Bienniale 2013
Review and reflection by Yehudis Barmatz
As a religious Jewish mother and young woman I struggle with my artistic identity. I search for inspiration and company amongst other modern artists whose art practice and Jewish association exists in one breath.
From the start, I have associated my art with my Jewishness but have refused to have answers about how that defines my artwork. Prior knowledge can be restraining. Rebbe Nachman explains that ideas are like a growing fetus. Just as the fetus develops in the darkness of the womb, our thoughts and ideas need to form in the nurturing space of the unknown.
“The question ‘What is Jewish Art?” reads the statement for the group show, My Soul Thirsts, “Is like asking ‘What is Love?’ There is no single, clear definitive answer.” Yes, finally someone said it. In any case, the statement provides an answer. Jewish Art is “the yearning for spiritual growth.” I take liberties to interpret this “definition” as a comment which says, “Let it grow.” Contemporary Jewish art is in throes of development, the yearning for spiritual growth is its process. This process needs space and nurture.
A deeper reflection of Jewish art occurs in the wordless conversation so sensitively and creatively composed by the curators Nurits Sirkas-Banks and Noa Leah Cohen. The gallery context stands up to the challenge. Not only are the contemporary works successfully integrated into the permanent exhibition, the dialogue between the two displays are rightfully sparked.
Aside from the lobby gallery, the rest of the works have to be sought out on the third floor amongst artistic relics of Europe and early 20th century Israeli paintings. Old and new are reflected upon side by side and the viewer is reminded about history as inspiration, as continuous, and yes, as contemporary. Contemporary now is History later.
A similar curating technique was used in the 2011 exhibit “Languages”, of works by New immigrant Students in Israel. The pieces were installed amongst the various exhibit rooms of the Underground Prisoner’s Museum in The Russian Compound. But there, the topic was about Israeli history and the achievement of Zionism. Here, art is placed next to art, and the context is spiritual and ethnical, but not national or political.
As artists and as Jews, the exhibition tells us, we are part of a long chain of tradition. This is a tradition of creativity focusing on making a dwelling place for the divine, as our first known Jewish artist Betzalel did when he made the Mishkan. The title of one of the rooms of the permanent exhibit states, “And I may dwell amongst them.” This is a tradition of opening ourselves up; to receive, to prayer, to yearning for the holy land of Torah Scrolls, and to studying the scroll’s Holy Letters.
The repeated imagery in the new works is of flames, Torah scrolls and the Hebrew lettering, a personalization of history, of old and new technique. The tools are different but the expression is the same.
In the Heichal Shlomo exhibit we are forced to look at the past as a way to identify our present. There is no escaping our roots. This includes our collective loss, pain, sacrifice, and yearning. It is not simple to look all this in the face. The installation of the exhibition, from this aspect, is itself a work of magnificence, raising a dialogue, unabashed of its vulnerability to challenge and critique.
This show is not a fleeting experience. It speaks to the deep unconscious identity inside me. I exit the building as if landing from a journey of which I am a part. Here, in the unanswerable and unspoken, I want a place. Count me in.